Great shifting mountains of sand whipped into waves of featureless landscape: The desert goes on and on and on, blanched mounds spread across vast emptiness.
I stand facing this vast nothingness, my back to one of game’s greatest living worlds. It is a world packed with all that ancient Egypt has to offer, with an problematic Roman Republic, with intrigue, with peasants so enlivened by software that they sow digital crops and live digital lives, with animals that hunt, hide, sleep through an AI-driven circle of life. But the most fascinating thing inside this virtual fiction isn’t all of the details, the minutia that went in to so perfecting Egyptian life under the Ptolemaic dynasty that it can be used to teach students, its this desert.
This desert breaks all of Assassin’s Creed Origins rules. It isn’t there to educate or entertain. It doesn’t offer up computer-driven characters to entice you away from the game’s main story with their own sad tales and quests.
It just is.
In designing this latest Assassin’s Creed the team knew it would have to find ways to frame the map of the world so players wouldn’t suddenly find themselves hitting an invisible wall as they wander across the Nile or through Alexandria. For the most part, these boundaries are set by nature, things like mountains you can’t climb, or rivers you can ford.
But the desert of Origins allows for exploration and examination until it gently stops the player from proceeding.
“The desert was something we wanted in the game,” says Julien Laferriere, the producer on the game.
And they wanted the desert to feel unlike anything else in the game.
“In the countryside we tried to have a certain pacing,” he says. “There is always something to do X amount of meters or minutes away.
“For the desert, we wanted to change that pacing.”
So while a player may wander across the shifting sands and discover the occasional oasis, caravan, sandstorm or even a mirage, the rhythm of the biome is different from the rest, more contemplative.
It’s easy, I found after wandering across a third of the game’s map, to be so struck by your first view of the desert that you simply drop what you’re doing and go into it.
Given my limited time, though, I was forced to return after a few minutes, happening upon some half-buried ruins on the outskirts of a city.
The ruins, often entrances to underground, dungeon-like burial chambers or pyramids, are another way the developers worked to break up the typical rhythm of the game.
In the one I entered, I found traps that set me on fire, snakes that tried to kill me for attempting to steal and other unpleasant surprises. Unlike most of the other settings in the game, this was claustrophobic and dark.
I ask Laferriere how the team found balance in trying to deliver a story-driven campaign in a world so distracting and enticing.
“ We have this preoccupation inside the team,” he says. “We created a world with the focus on player freedom. We really want the players to shape the way they want to experience this world. But the series is also known for having a strong narrative and lore people like. And we need this story aspect to the game.”
To blend the two, the team tried to use the game’s assassination targets as a sort of motivator to get people to explore the world and travel across the map, he says.
“Each target lives in a different region of the map and each have their own agenda and have their own goings-on and gangs.
“So you’re lured to get in that region and unlock that new boss.”
The game also has more side quests than ever before and the main narrative path has been streamlined. Finally, they packed the world with even more non-player characters who sort of help blend away the contrast between player-created experiences and written narrative.
“That’s how,” he says, “we try to balance everything.”